Infestation

Bats. Tara’s house was infested with bats. That’s what her ex-husband had called to report. Leo had been in the attic, removing what she hoped was the last of his belongings, when one swooped by his head. It’d been nearly two years after their divorce papers were signed and approved by a judge, and still Leo’s crap haunted her house. She was irritated by the idea of her ex walking unsupervised through the house they used to live in together. Other people’s ex-husbands disappeared after the divorce, provided there were no kids and even sometimes if there were, but Leo kept turning up every few months like a stubborn rash. Why did he even have a key after all this time? She told herself that was something she’d have to remedy, but vaguely, she knew she wouldn’t. 

Tara was on the road with the band for one more week, and Leo was departing on a ski trip before she got back, so it wasn’t an unreasonable request to ask for access to the attic. Still, the thought of him casually flipping through her mail (she wasn’t great at forwarding his bills along), checking out the cabinets to see what kinds of junk food she’d been indulging in (cheese balls and gingersnaps were her weakness), or peeking in her bedroom to see if she’d left anything incriminating on the bedside table (condoms, lube, fuzzy handcuffs—these were normal things people had, even if he didn’t see it that way). That was the thing with Tara’s ex-husband, he made her feel like she was doing something wrong. He made her feel like a criminal. 

Obviously, Leo couldn’t resist advising her on what exterminator to call. He had a friend who knew a friend who had a brother who was a wildlife specialist, and of course he did, because Leo seemed to know everyone in Nashville. Trapper Pete, Leo insisted. That was the guy she should call. Leo reminded her that bats carried disease, they could be a real problem, and she shouldn’t wait too long to do something about it. Don’t let them set up a permanent roost, he said, or you’ll never get rid of them. He paused before saying goodbye and she got the feeling he might offer to make a call for her, but he didn’t.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t Tara’s first infestation. Last summer on the road, she’d caught lice from the band’s drummer. His daughter’s daycare had an outbreak, and before they could blink, the rest of the rhythm section was digging at the backs of their scalps. They washed everything on the bus and spent one of their days off at a place called Lice Solutions. Sweet young women picked through their scalps, moving hairs strand by strand, depositing any creepy crawlies in a bowl of white water. The memory was enough to give Tara the heebie-jeebies.

Tara didn’t want to deal with lice or bats or anything really. She was tired from the road, her tendonitis was flaring up, and she had so much laundry to do. Coming back home was always a bit of a chore. The house smelled musty and sour like she’d forgotten to take out the garbage, and inevitably, there was something she’d have to fix—the fridge that stopped running or a leak from the washer. Little nagging projects that Leo used to handle when she was out of town. She considered calling him back and asking him to take care of the bats while she was still away, and if she asked, she knew he would. He was a good guy. He’d always been a good guy while they were married. But apparently, now, Good Guy Leo was also talking shit about her all over town. She’d heard it from a mutual friend that he was badmouthing her at a cocktail party. Yes, she’d blown up their marriage in a stupid way with a stupid man, but it was two years ago and she was in therapy now. She’d cut back on drinking, she’d stopped seeing the man she had the affair with, and in general, she was trying to get her act together. She was forty years old. She had to start acting like an adult at some point, so she resolved she would make the damn call herself.

Trapper Pete knocked around the attic for nearly half an hour before he was ready to assess the situation. It was a sunny day in early December, and Tara wanted to soak up all the fresh air and Vitamin D. She sat on a chair on the front porch, coffee in hand, crossword in the other. She didn’t have a large front porch but she had just enough room for a couple of chairs, and she liked to put her feet up on the railing. She’d just come back from a run through Texas, ten shows in eleven nights. Every night but one on the bus, sleeping in the bunks, the heavy breathing and body odor of her bandmates cocooning her. She was relieved to be home, happy to be off the bus, though when she was lying in bed, she could still feel the sway and motion of the highway. After ten straight nights of playing, her tendonitis ached, and just picking up her coffee cup made her wince. She put the mug on the porch railing and rubbed at the skin on her wrist and hand. She hadn’t had a flare-up in a while, and she was about to start the busy season of holiday gigs. Just another thing she’d have to deal with in the next few days. 

Trapper Pete came out of the house, letting the storm door slap closed behind him. He leaned against the railing, nearly knocking off her mug. “Coffee smells good,” he assessed.

“Want some?” she offered, but he shook his head no. He had shaggy brown hair that he pushed off his forehead every once in a while like a nervous tic. He was wearing faded jeans and a black hoodie that had a Trapper Pete logo with three slashes like animal scratches across the letters on the left breast. He reminded her of the boyfriends she’d had in high school—half athlete, half outdoorsman, the type of kid who would have been the best player on the school’s ultimate frisbee team. 

“There’s a family up there,” he said. He had a deep country accent. “At least a couple pups.”

“I always wanted a pet,” she joked. Pups sounded cute, but she didn’t want them in her house. Didn’t want them shitting all over whatever she had up there—did she have anything up there? Old yearbooks, old instruments, clothes? She wasn’t even sure. 

“These aren’t the kind of pups you can play fetch with,” he said, his face more serious than she expected.

“So, what do you do?” She sat up in her chair. “How do we get them out?”

Trapper Pete explained the bats, especially bat babies, are federally protected.

“Even in my house? I can’t evict them? They are trespassing, after all.” 

He smiled a little. “No ma’am,” he said. “I’m going to have to report them to the authorities, and then we can see if we can relocate them.” He had some ideas, he assured her, but he wanted to consult a wildlife expert. It was December, so he was surprised there was any bat activity at all. “I’m going to fix you up,” he promised. “I’m going to take care of you.”

Tara nodded and studied Trapper Pete over the rim of her coffee mug. She’d heard this kind of promise a lot. She was often in need, and surprisingly, there were always people who volunteered. Even when she didn’t deserve it. She was trying to break the habit of relying on other people to do her dirty work. She was trying to make better choices. On the other hand, Trapper Pete, with his massive pick-up truck full of tools and confident air, seemed like the kind of guy who had hidden talents. She’d always been attracted to people who knew how to do things, especially things she didn’t. 

Tara was covered in needles, dozens of them vibrating down her arms and in her fingers and hands and chest and cheeks and ears and scalp, and her phone would not stop buzzing. She was lying on the table, half-undressed, needles tattooing every exposed skin surface, determined to ease the pain of her tendonitis, but the phone was relentless. Usually, this quiet time was her favorite part of her acupuncture sessions, when the technician left, and she could sink into the darkness of the room, absorb the musky smell of herbal tea that Dr. Zhao insisted she drink after every session. But the phone would not stop fussing, tucked in the folds of her discarded clothes. It was Leo. She was sure of it. He’d called yesterday to check on her progress with the bats, but instead of Tara taking this as a kind gesture, she’d interpreted it as more interference. Him checking in on her meant checking up on her.

“I’m only trying to help,” he’d complained.

“I don’t need your help, Leo,” she’d assured him. “I’m not your business anymore. Let me catch rabies if I want to. I’m not your wife anymore. It isn’t your house anymore. Why do you even care?” It sounded too harsh, but she was annoyed. 

“I’m just being friendly,” he said, and she snapped back with, “I don’t need any more friends.” They’d hung up, but they both knew that wasn’t true. She was a good time, fun at parties, but she didn’t have a lot of long-haul friendships.

Tara couldn’t ignore the relentless buzzing any longer. She got up, snagged the phone from the back of her jean pockets, and swiped the screen angrily.

“What?” she snapped. She couldn’t hold the phone to her ear since there were five-inch needles jiggling from them. She put it on speaker. It was Felicia, one of the few close friends she’d managed to keep.

Felicia’s voice struggled to catch, crackled and spit like a bonfire, and then the line was quiet again. More rustling erupted from the speaker.

“Felicia, is this a butt dial?” she said. “I can’t talk right now.” Tara watched the needle protruding from her nose quiver like a tiny diving board as she talked. 

 Felicia interrupted, “Jimmy’s dead,” and Tara heard again that same crackling, the noise she now realized was Felicia weeping into the receiver.

The news was unbelievable, unreal, so Tara parroted it back to Felicia, unsure her brain could process the information. Jimmy was young, healthy, full of potential, and yes, sometimes wobbly career-wise. He’d hopped around various restaurant jobs and most recently had apprenticed at a tattoo parlor. Tara knew he’d eventually find his way, but Leo hadn’t been so sure. Jimmy was Leo’s younger brother, the only one in the family who really got Tara. They’d bonded over obscure music trivia, a love of whiskey, dark humor, and cheesy horror movies. Sometimes, when the whole family was together, Tara thought Jimmy was the one she probably should have married, despite him being fifteen years her junior, maybe because of it.

Tara waited for an explanation, but all Felicia could do was squeak little noises and gulps and say how sorry she was to spring this on Tara, but how did you tell someone that someone had died? How did you tell them he did it to himself? That he was found in the basement, gun in hand, head half blown off? 

Tara lay back down on the massage table. She wanted to put her hands to her face. To rub away the reality of what Felicia had spilled into the receiver. The needles quivered and shook as Tara tried to breathe deeply, tried to keep herself from falling apart in the doctor’s office. 

“Leo found him,” Felicia said. An image snapped clearly into focus in Tara’s mind, ripe with the scent of gunpowder and blood. There was only so much she could take. She cut the call and tossed the phone back on her pile of clothes. The needles on the backs of her hands waved in response to her movement, prickling the skin up the backs of her arms, setting her nerves on fire. 

Trapper Pete’s size thirteens pounded the ceiling and Tara could hear various objects being dragged or rearranged in the attic. It had been going on for hours. Today, the weather was gray and brisk, and she could not retreat to the front porch to escape the scrambling sounds in her attic—like squirrels and raccoons engaged in a cage match. Right now, she was trapped in her bedroom. The attic stairs blocked most of the upstairs hallway, and she didn’t want to fold them up, risking closing Trapper Pete in there. She’d needed to get ready for the funeral, but she didn’t know it would take him so long, and now she was stuck. Cornered in her own damn house.

Trapper Pete had dragged up some equipment and netting, and he had a long-winded plan to encourage the bats to roost elsewhere. He’d listed a variety of ideas, but Tara was only half listening—something about Vick’s VapoRub and menthol oils. She remembered there would be netting, lots of netting, and she’d agreed to bat-proof the attic despite it costing her an arm and a leg. At this point, she wasn’t worried about the bats. She was supposed to attend Jimmy’s funeral today, and she was dreading it. 

She’d called Leo after she’d gotten out of Dr. Zhao’s office, but his voicemail was full. She’d sent a text about how sorry she was and how much she liked Jimmy. Leo’s response: Thanks. She had a meal delivered to Leo from his favorite restaurant. The delivery guy confirmed the linguine and lemon cake had gotten there, but of course, he couldn’t confirm Leo had eaten it. She called again to leave a message on Leo’s phone asking for details about the funeral, but in her nervousness, she’d called it a wedding. Dammit. She sputtered into his voicemail. I’m sorry. I want to help, she said. I don’t know what is wrong with me. He responded by sending her a link to the obituary and a terse thanks for the meal. She wasn’t sure what else she could do to let him know she was there for him. She wasn’t very good at being a caretaker. It was new territory.

A particularly loud crack echoed down the attic steps, and Tara paced. She’d been in her room trying to figure out what to wear for the funeral, and still the attic steps blocked her path back downstairs. She poked her head out of her room again to see if there was any change, if he’d come down yet. No movement. The steps, ladder-like, were still extended in the hallway. She walked back into her bedroom. She was wearing funeral attire: a plum-black dress, black tights, and black heels. Her heels seemed too sexy to wear to a funeral, but she didn’t have any other black shoes. Most of her clothes were for performances and looked stage-ready, theatric, with buckles or sparkles or vibrant colors. She hadn’t gone to many funerals, so she wasn’t entirely sure what the dress code would be like, but she was certain red leather boots weren’t the way to go. She’d see some of Leo’s family for the first time since their divorce and she wasn’t sure what kind of reaction she would receive. She wasn’t sure who knew what.

The attic steps creaked as they took on Trapper Pete’s weight. Tara moved to the hallway again. He was wearing combat boots, and the edge of neon yellow socks peeked between his boots and the cuffs of his jeans. The ladder looked too flimsy to support a man of his size, but he seemed confident. He turned when he saw her.

“Dolled up!” he said. Not a question. Just an exclamation.

She nodded and wished she had some plain black flats. She wasn’t aiming for “dolled up.” She wanted to look sober, responsible, kind, for once the kind of person you could count on. 

“Looking hot,” he assessed.

She didn’t respond, and instead, waited for him to fold up the attic steps and get out of the way.

“Where are you headed?”

“Wedding.” She shook her head. “I mean, funeral. Shit. I don’t know why I keep doing that.” That should shut the conversation down, but it didn’t.

Pete leaned back on the attic steps as if the word hit him like a physical blow. “Oh damn. I’m sorry.” There was genuine empathy in his reaction. It made her soften.

“It sucks,” she said and suddenly found herself crying. She was crying for Jimmy, but mainly for Leo, who she’d already failed in so many ways. She was afraid she’d make a scene at the funeral. That his family wouldn’t want her there. That she was only going to make things worse. She cried out of frustration and fear. 

Before she knew it, Trapper Pete was holding her against his chest. The vinyl hardness of the Trapper Pete logo scratching against her cheek. His chest was firm and he held her tight like a wild animal who might bite him. He smelled like Vicks VapoRub and it reminded her of the times she’d been sick as a child. The cool quality of the menthol sneaking up her nose and settling in her throat like a warm burn. She pushed her face into his neck for more.

She was late to the wedding, dammit, funeral, she scolded herself, and there was a fresh run in her stockings. It started just under the hemline of her dress, and she’d only noticed it when she got to the church. She looked in the rearview mirror. Her face was flushed and her hair slightly mussed. She smelled like sex but there was no time to take a shower. She just hoped no one would go in for a hug. She couldn’t imagine anyone at this funeral would want to hug her. She ran a hand over her hair, tucking some stray strands behind her ear. She jumped when someone tapped on the window.

“Jesus,” she said, letting out a pent-up sigh. Felicia’s face peered down at her. “You scared me.”

Felicia shrugged, and Tara opened the door, stepping out. “We’re late too,” she explained. “We’ll sneak in together.”

Tara nodded and followed Felicia and her husband to the side door of the church. They worried the front doors may be too noisy to make a quiet entry. Felicia stopped in the doorway, and rearranged a hem on Tara’s dress, near the collar. “You look a little disheveled, honey,” she said. “Let me fix this.” She tugged on Tara’s dress, and Tara felt like crying again.

The sex was perfectly fine. She wasn’t disappointed or angry and she didn’t feel taken advantage of or manipulated. Trapper Pete was all kindness and manners, and practically thanked her for their “time together.” He wanted to take her to dinner, but she was leaving in a few days anyway. She wasn’t in the mood for an awkward dinner and any unfulfilled expectations. What she was annoyed about, what made her feel sad, was how she’d fallen into her own trap again. Allowing the cracks in herself to be filled in by pleasure, adventure, something, anything but sadness and pain. She was a damsel in distress, waiting to be rescued. It was a familiar role, and the cues were easy to follow.

Inside, a pipe organ filled the church, playing “Precious Lord Take Me Home.” She only knew it through Elvis’ version. Her family didn’t go to church much, but her father had been a big fan of Elvis’ gospel records. She squeezed into the pew next to Felicia and studied the program she’d picked up off the pew. They weren’t really late. These were just the introductory hymns. The front few pews were still empty of mourners, reserved for the family. There weren’t as many mourners as she thought there might be. She figured the church would be packed, considering the family’s connections in Nashville. There were lots of people she didn’t recognize though, and a group of younger folk who seemed to be Jimmy’s friends. He’d spent the last year working in a tattoo parlor to his mother’s chagrin, and many of the younger set had full sleeves decorating their arms and large gauges in their ears. 

The family filed into the pews. Leo escorted his mother, holding her gently by the elbow. He looked like the same old Leo. She hadn’t seen him since that summer and his sandy blond hair was even lighter. His face was still tan from coaching, a light white line across the bridge of his nose where his sunglasses sat. His dark gray suit fit him perfectly. She wondered if it might be the suit he had worn for their wedding. As a coach, he didn’t need a lot of dress-up clothes. The same suit served him well for any fancy dinner or awards event they had attended. It seemed unfair that she’d only worn her wedding dress once. She tried to catch his eye as he shuffled into the pew, but he only smiled grimly at the other cousins and close friends sitting directly behind the family.

The service seemed pretty typical, save the testimonials, eulogies, she wasn’t sure what to call them, supplied by the friends’ section of the group. One man who shared a few words looked ex-military with a shaved head and torn camo pants and couldn’t make it through his dedication without breaking down. The family members smiled politely, but Leo stood and shook the man’s hand after he stepped down from the altar. Leo always knew what to do and how to bring people together. He knew how to make you feel seen. That was what Tara missed about him the most. The warm spotlight of his affection.

After the funeral, Felicia insisted that Tara come to the wake at Leo’s mother’s house, but Tara refused. “I’m a distraction,” she explained. After the service, there were people lined up to talk to Leo, and she could never find her opening. When she finally caught his eye, over the crowd, she smiled sympathetically and he returned a curt nod. He didn’t want her there. Good Guy Leo had had enough. The song “I’ll Fly Away” was the recessional, and Tara decided that was what she needed to do for Leo. Fly away home where she couldn’t cause him any more pain.

When she looked at her phone in the car, there were already several texts, mostly emojis, from Trapper Pete. She swiped the screen to open them and she winced in pain—even that small gesture made her wrist hurt. She shifted the phone to her other hand, navigating the screen clumsily with her other thumb. Some of the texts involved confusing combinations of animals—tiger face, heart emoji, butterfly? She wasn’t sure what the hell he was trying to tell her, but she knew she’d fucked up. Again. She deleted them without responding. She’d have to find another exterminator, and maybe a roommate, someone who could live at the house while she was away, take care of stuff like this. She put her phone on the passenger seat and looked at the hole in her stocking. She stuck a finger through the spot that had doubled in size during the funeral. She felt the soft mound of her skin protruding through the hose. She hooked her finger in the hose and yanked, ripping a long tear down one leg.

The passenger side door opened, and Leo plunked down in the car seat. The smell of him instantly filled the car—the combination of deodorant, shampoo, laundry detergent, and just a natural freshness that seemed to seep from his pores. He was everything clean and strong and good, and she’d thrown it away. Like all the other foolish things she did, she didn’t know how to undo it. 

Leo didn’t say anything, so Tara stayed quiet. She was ready for anything. Maybe he would yell at her, really let loose. He’d never been really mad at her, even when he found out about her affair. He’d cried but he’d never yelled. She was ready to be critiqued, criticized, punished for intruding on the funeral. She was ready to take the full weight of his anger, sadness, frustration. Part of her wanted him to finally lose control, smash the dashboard, slam the door. Instead, they sat quietly as the church parking lot emptied. The winter sun prowled the tops of the tree branches even though it was only 4 o’clock. The car idled and the heat purred warm breath on their faces. 

“I’m tired,” Leo said.

“I bet.” Tara wanted to say something more, but her lip quivered, and she was determined not to cry. She couldn’t stand the idea of Leo comforting her in his moment of pain. She would be strong. She would be there for him.

Her phone buzzed, and Leo shifted, pulling it out from under his thigh. The screen was lit with a message from Trapper Pete—bat emoji, cat with heart-shaped eyeballs, dancing lady. Leo assessed the emojis, handed her the phone, and shook his head. He might not know the whole story, but to know her was to know enough. “Jesus, Tara. What is wrong with you?” 

It stung, but she was too sad to be angry. She shrugged. It was all she could offer this man who had once loved her, who seemed to still love her in some way, and who she wanted to help. “I’m complicated,” she offered. 

“I guess you could call it that.” He handed her the phone.

She turned it off and put it in her lap. The hole she had torn in her hose rippled down the fabric into smaller holes. “I make a lot of bad choices, but I’m not a bad person.” It was something her therapist told her, something she was fighting to believe about herself.

Leo laughed but his laugh quickly turned into a wail, a hiccupping cry, as if his sadness was tearing its way out of his throat. He put his head in his hands, his broad back a curled shell in her passenger seat.  

She put her hand on his shoulder, just lightly at first, as if he might buck away from her. He didn’t move, and she let her hand rest a little heavier. She let her hand move back and forth between his shoulder blades. She felt the crisp fabric of his suit, the threads bundled tight together with a subtle pinstripe. This was the suit he’d worn for their wedding. It had to be. She’d helped him pick it out, and they stood together in the tailor’s dressing room, her hands running under the fabric of his shirt, his pants. Back then they couldn’t keep their hands to themselves. 

Now, the same strong back was under her fingertips. His chest heaved under the weight of her palm. Her wrist throbbed from the tendonitis, the warmth deep under her skin, all the old aches gathering into one smoldering burn.

*

Susan Finch is an associate professor of creative writing at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. Her work has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Crab Orchard Review, New Ohio Review, Nimrod, Beloit Fiction Journal, and elsewhere. Currently, she is working on a novel and a story collection.